Bulb-planting in the fall is always an act of hope. This year, it becomes a form of therapy. When the crocuses, daffodils and tulips next flower, we will be assured of at least one thing: It won’t be 2020.

Not much is instant in the garden, but spring bulbs planted in autumn come pretty close. I can’t think of anything more forward-looking or reassuring at the moment than planting tulip bulbs.

From a practical standpoint, it’s difficult to mess up with bulbs; they are little packages programmed to grow and bloom. All they need is some moisture and the enduring cold soil of winter to shoot up and flower early next year.

Even if you ignore the earliest bloomers — the snowdrops and aconites — carefully selected bulbs can give you a show that begins in late February and endures until at least late May, offering three months of icing on the vernal cake.

The next couple weeks is prime bulb-planting season, but these wee packets of spring can go in anytime before the ground freezes. I’d get to this sooner rather than later, though. In the hyper-domestic pandemic paradigm, many people are jumping on bulb-planting as a way of doing something for and around their homes, and varieties are selling out.

Crocus tommasinianus, often called tommies, are the first crocuses of the year, usually appearing by late February in the Mid-Atlantic. Their arrival with snowdrops announces the start of another growing season. (Colorblends.com)
Crocus tommasinianus, often called tommies, are the first crocuses of the year, usually appearing by late February in the Mid-Atlantic. Their arrival with snowdrops announces the start of another growing season. (Colorblends.com)
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Crocuses launch a continuous and overlapping display, followed by daffodils and tulips and alliums, or ornamental onions. This weeks-long parade is enlivened by specialty bulbs, which bloom in the following order, loosely: giant snowdrop, bulbous iris, common snowdrop, crocus, scilla, chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow), windflower and muscari (grape hyacinth). By variety, daffodils generally bloom from late February to late April, tulips from late March to early May, and most alliums in May to early June. Hyacinths bloom in early spring; I find them awkward in the garden but cheerful as indoor potted plants. I’ve given up on fritillaries, which are, in my experience, one-shot wonders in hot, humid regions.

My long-standing advice has been to plant far more bulbs than you think is enough, so you can create drama in the garden. (The smaller the bulb, the more you should plant.)

I was thinking that Tim Schipper, owner of bulb retailer Colorblends, would agree with me; his business model relies on bigger orders, both for landscapers and consumers.

But he says that a common mistake of new gardeners is to buy too many bulbs that never make it into the ground, because, well, bulbs don’t plant themselves.

“It’s hard work,” he said. “Take a smaller bite, see how it goes, don’t try to get it all done in one year.”

Bulbs are available from independent garden centers, mail-order bulb companies and other online retailers. Mass merchandisers are another source, but selection tends to be limited and the availability period short.

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For mass plantings of eye-catching tulips, the anticipation of their appearance is almost as much pleasure as the spring show. The easiest way to plant a block in a vacant bed is to dig a trench at least seven inches deep with a shovel. (Colorblends.com)
For mass plantings of eye-catching tulips, the anticipation of their appearance is almost as much pleasure as the spring show. The easiest way to plant a block in a vacant bed is to dig a trench at least seven inches deep with a shovel. (Colorblends.com)

There are two basic ways to employ bulbs. The first is to plant in large blocks, the second to intersperse them among existing perennials. The latter course is especially effective in spring-themed beds, where bulbs pop up between such things as hellebores, epimediums, creeping phlox, foam flowers, Virginia bluebells, Solomon’s seal and ferns.

In recent years, I’ve tried a different approach by finding spare beds in the vegetable garden for extravagant tulip displays. The bulbs are lifted and discarded in May, and then the beds are used for summer vegetables. By crowding the tulips together — avoid having the bulbs touch — I can take plenty for the vase without affecting the show.

If you have blocks of perennials, such as hostas or day lilies, or expansive ground covers, you can achieve the same effect of a carpet of tulips by planting densely if carefully. Otherwise, it’s a case of planting isolated clumps of spring bulbs in existing beds. The perennials, as they grow, mask the declining bulb foliage. Amid beefier perennials, you will need to plant taller bulbs, such as big daffodils and tulips and alliums, to elevate the show sufficiently.

Four-legged pests are always an issue with bulbs; a prime culprit right after planting is the squirrel. One trick is to plant the bulbs deeply — to six or seven inches — and cover with a little mulch to hide the disturbed soil. In smaller areas, an inch or two of pea gravel may provide a barrier, and this looks attractive.

Come spring, deer will regard tulips and crocuses as candy. Repellents will help, but the best remedy against furry invaders in fall and spring is to focus on daffodils and alliums, which both squirrels and deer find distasteful.

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Here are some thoughts on planting tulips and daffodils, the two most favored bulbs, and some general advice on planting bulbs.

Tulips

Many of the showy hybrid tulips are not reliably perennial, and those that return will probably be less vigorous. Their chances of returning are improved if they are grown in full sun and perfectly drained soil that is kept on the dry side in summer. I treat them as annual indulgences and yank them after blooming. Species-type tulips, sometimes called wild or botanical tulips, are low-growing and appear earlier. They usually come back year after year, especially if given a sunny site and good drainage. These include the wonderfully slender (and taller) clusiana varieties and the bakeri, humilis, praestans, tarda and turkestanica species. Common varieties include Lilac Wonder, Little Beauty and Little Princess.

Small, multiflowered versions of the daffodil are easier to place among ground covers and perennials than tall, brassy types, and their lingering foliage is not as conspicuous. The variety Avalanche, pictured, has the added benefit of a sweet fragrance. (Colorblends.com)
Small, multiflowered versions of the daffodil are easier to place among ground covers and perennials than tall, brassy types, and their lingering foliage is not as conspicuous. The variety Avalanche, pictured, has the added benefit of a sweet fragrance. (Colorblends.com)

Daffodils

Dainty, bloom-rich miniature varieties work beautifully in small garden beds and in areas with low-growing ground covers. They add a cheerfulness beyond their stature, recede with more decorum than their bigger brothers and reflect the sophistication of the gardener. I put them in clumps of up to a dozen bulbs, each grouping a few feet apart. Look for Hawera, Geranium, Jetfire, Tête-a-Tête, Minnow, Sailboat and Avalanche, among others.

How to grow

Most spring bulbs originate in arid regions and need well-drained conditions, especially when they are dormant in summer. They are not for soggy soil. If you have an irrigation system, your bulbs may rot away. Camassia, a native bulb, will take wetter conditions.

They also need sunlight to recharge themselves. A daffodil in partial shade will flower each year, but one in the heart of a deep woodland will peter out. For this reason, avoid beds right next to north-facing walls and fences.

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Generally, larger bulbs are planted at about six inches (I go an inch or two deeper), and smaller ones at three to five inches. You want at least three inches of soil above the top of the bulb. I plant crocus bulbs as deeply as tulips to try to thwart the squirrels.

In theory, a bulb set askew will right itself. Trying to orient every little specialty bulb is tedious and unnecessary. But for bigger bulbs, do them a favor and try to set them with the growing point or nose upward.

Tools

Stay away from cheap trowels, which aren’t up to the job. The common handheld bulb-planter is tough on the wrists, especially with heavy soil. Long-handled versions rely on leg muscles and are more effective.

If you are block-planting in a vacant bed, take a strong, sharp shovel and excavate the whole area. Schipper says if you have a sheet of plywood, pile the soil on that as you go. That makes it easier to shovel the soil back afterward. He also recommends the shovel for spot-planting in perennial beds. My preferred tool for planting in tight spots is the mattock, especially if the soil is on the poor side. A weeding knife is effective for opening up holes for small specialty bulbs, especially in cultivated soil.

Containers

Bulbs, especially miniature varieties, are effective in pots, planters and containers. But they must drain and be freeze-proof. Common terra-cotta pots will crack in winter.

There must be soil beneath the bulbs for the roots to grow into. After planting (in potting soil), cover the surface with netting or an inch or two of pea gravel to thwart squirrels. Ideally, the container should be kept in an unheated shed or garage for most of the winter, watered occasionally and brought outside once the bulbs have initiated top growth.